Oak Park Makes Up for Lost Time with Another Championship

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

June 5, 2021

KENTWOOD – Nonah Waldron has run in all kinds of challenging conditions, but nothing like this.

The Oak Park sophomore pushed aside tough headwinds which all runners struggled with to win a pair of events at Saturday's Lower Peninsula Division 1 Girls Track & Field Finals at East Kentwood.

Waldron said she's run in heat, freezing cold and soaking rain, but never has she met up with the strong winds that buffeted Falcons Stadium. The conditions didn't seem to detract from the results, however, as she swept to victories the 100 hurdles (13.72) and 300 hurdles (43.17). The 100 hurdles time was seventh-best in state history.

"I fought them the whole races," Waldron said of the wind. "It was more mental than physical. My mind was where it was supposed to be – focused and believing in myself. But it was harder, a challenge."

Waldron said the wind wasn't going to keep her from success.

"It was definitely my goal," she said of winning twice. "I ran a 13.4 at nationals in Oregon, so I knew I had a chance."

Birmingham Seaholm trackWaldron helped Oak Park to the team championship with 86 points. Detroit Renaissance was runner-up with 62 points, and Ann Arbor Huron third with 45.

Oak Park coach Brandon Jiles said his team has been eyeing Saturday’s championship for months. Last season was canceled due to COVID-19, but Saturday’s win ran Oak Park’s title streak to three and six over the last seven seasons.

"Excellence is part of our tradition, and the kids work hard. We put a lot of work into this," he said. "We battled through adversity and made up for missing last year. We've been tough and resilient, and I think that improved our chances this year."

While the conditions were rugged for all runners, Birmingham Seaholm senior Audrey DaDamio had a fantastic meet in winning the 800 (2:11.95), 1,600 (4:44.38) and 3,200 (10:22.11). She now owns school records in the 1,600 and 3,200 and is second in the 800.

DaDamio, headed to Stanford this fall, said a clean sweep of all three events has been a goal since a successful  indoor season.

"It's been something I've been looking to do all season. I thought, 'Why not?'" she said. "My season has had some ups and downs since I came off the indoor season (and indoor state record) which blew my mind. But I didn't feel like I have been able to showcase my talent in some races (this spring). That's been tough."

DaDamio said she felt strong after the 1,600 and despite temperatures in the high 80s, winning two more events seemed possible.

"I thought the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward," she said. "If I lead in a race, fine. If not, I just relax. I had confidence."

Kaila Jackson of Detroit Renaissance was also a double winner, capturing the 100 (11.70) and 200 (24.01). Jackson said she doesn't necessarily have an opinion as to which race is stronger for her.

Oak Park track"They are pretty much the same," she said. "The wind held me back, but you've still got to be out there pumping your arms. Considering the wind, times weren't as fast, but it was still tough. I train hard in both events and I'm pretty strong. It's a challenge.

"I thought I had a chance because I've trained so hard. I looked at the times and thought I could do well."

Among the other winners were Lincoln Park's Karrington Gordon, who won the high jump in 5-7. Gordon, who will play basketball next season at Central Michigan, was only a ninth seed in the high jump – which she said prompted extra effort.

"I wanted to prove them wrong," she said. "I did 5-7 and a quarter three weeks ago, so I knew I wasn't far off. I knew there was good competition, and I knew I had to be ready."

Among the other individual champions were Traverse City's Leah Doezema in the discus (145-4), Sophia Mettes of Dexter in the pole vault (12-6), Opal Jackson of Macomb L'Anse Creuse North in the shot put (47-3), Alaina Diaz of Hudsonville in the long jump (19-9) and Jada Roundtree of Oak Park in the 400 (55.13).

Among the relays, Renaissance won the  800 (1:36.99) and the 400 (45.56) while Ann Arbor Pioneer won the 3,200 (9:09.43) and Oak Park the 1,600 (3:46.63).

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Oak Park, led by double winner Nonah Waldron (far right) dominated both hurdles races Saturday at East Kentwood. (Middle) Birmingham Seaholm’s Audrey DaDamio celebrates one of her three championships. (Below) Oak Park climbs the champion’s podium for the third straight season. (Action photos by Ike Lea; team photos by John Brabbs/RunMichigan.com.)   

East Kentwood Friends Continuing to Excel as NCAA Champ, Pro Soccer Keeper

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

August 8, 2022

Maia Perez and Gabriela Leon saw it coming.

In fact, the two 2017 East Kentwood all-staters each predicted remarkable post-high school success for each other long before graduation.

Perez was a four-year letterwinner as a soccer goalkeeper who led the Falcons to the Division 1 Semifinals as a sophomore and now plays professionally in Los Angeles. Leon, an all-state pole vaulter in high school, recently became University of Louisville's first NCAA champion in that event.

The two say the success doesn't come as a surprise to either, that part of that success can be explained because they continually pushed each other athletically at East Kentwood.

"Obviously there are a lot of good athletes at East Kentwood, and she was one of those amazing athletes," Perez said of Leon. "When she accomplished something, I wanted to do something big, too. I was all-state in soccer, she was all-state in track, and it was nice to have someone push you, even on days when you didn't feel like being pushed."

Leon credits Perez for helping her grasp the difference between toiling as an ordinary athlete and rising to an elite status as early as the ninth grade.

"When you see high-caliber athletes in the state finals, I think you see the struggles that others don't see," Leon said. "I saw what she was doing, and I learned from that. I learned, and I think she did too, that you have to work hard to be good, to achieve your goals. There is definitely mutual respect between us."

East Kentwood track & fieldThe two met as freshmen and quickly became friends. They originally had soccer in common as both played junior varsity as freshmen before Perez was promoted to varsity later that spring. The teammates began hanging out together off the field, be it at the beach or while taking the school's advanced physical education class together. By the time they were sophomores, however, it had become apparent that Perez's future – despite being a good basketball player – would remain in soccer, while Leon – who had also lettered in volleyball and cross country – narrowed her focus to track.

Both excelled after leaving East Kentwood. Leon had earned her first top-eight MHSAA Finals places as a sophomore, and as a senior placed fourth in pole vault, third in long jump and ran on the fourth-place 400 relay and third-place 1,600 relay as East Kentwood finished third in Lower Peninsula Division 1. Her high school personal records were 13 feet in pole vault and 18-11 in long jump (with a wind-aided 19-7). She broke Louisville's indoor and outdoor records in the pole vault as a sophomore and never looked back. She won the 2022 NCAA outdoor championship in June with a jump of 15-feet, one inch (4.6 meters) while becoming just the fourth collegian ever to amass three clearances over 4.6 meters.

Perez was a three-time Ottawa-Kent Conference Red soccer pick in high school who helped the Falcons in 2015 to their best postseason finish, when they lost to 1-0 in a Semifinal to eventual Division 1 champ Saline. She went on to play at University of Hartford after attracting interest from other programs including Western Michigan, Coastal Carolina and Pittsburgh. She wound up playing every minute of all 37 of her starts as a sophomore and junior while missing just 45 minutes over 19 games as a freshman. COVID-19 wiped out the program's season when Perez was a senior. Still, she is eighth on the school's all-time saves list with 206 while ranking 10th in shutouts with 12.

Following college, Perez was signed by the Los Angeles-based Angel City FC of the National Women’s Soccer League. While she wasn't drafted by any NWSL club, Perez impressed coaches enough during a tryout to land a spot on the team's "Discovery List" as the youngest of three goalkeepers.

"Things have been going real well for me there," Perez said. "I feel like I've improved a ton."

While Perez credits Leon with pushing her as an athlete, she said the two didn't necessarily dwell on what they accomplished in high school. They did, however, compare notes on the similarities it took for both to succeed, both physically and mentally.

"We didn't necessarily talk about (honors) a lot," Perez said. "We both knew what each other accomplished, and I don't think we need to talk about it. But I just knew one day she would be really good in track."

East Kentwood soccerLeon said the trait which stuck out about Perez in high school was her competitive drive. She hated to lose, Leon said.

"She was always a very impressive athlete," Leon noted. "She always had (success) in her because she was a real hard worker. Going into high school you could see her work ethic. We had a mutual friendship, and I saw what a work ethic and being humble could do for you."

As for herself, Leon, like many athletes, explored playing many sports. But she always came back to track.

"I always wanted to be the best athlete I could be," she said. "I was never just satisfied with just doing something. I always had this deep desire to perform to the best of my ability."

Perez remembers the first sport which interested her was skateboarding. In fact, the first time Perez met then-East Kentwood coach John Conlon, she told him she was only marginally interested in soccer. Conlon, who led East Kentwood’s girls and boys programs to a combined 654 wins and the boys varsity to five Division 1 championships, quickly made a convert of Perez.

"It's funny how things work out," Perez said. "I was looking for something that I could really be a part of, and now it's my job and I'm so happy I can say I'm getting paid for something I really like."

2021-22 Made in Michigan

Aug. 3: 3-Time Finals Champ Cherishes Memories, Considering Golf Future - Read
Aug. 1: 
Lessons Learned on Track Have Jibowu's Business Surging to Quick Success - Read
July 28: 
Running Set Life's Stage for Grosse Pointe South's Record-Setting Meier Sisters - Read
July 25: 
2005 Miss Basketball DeHaan Cherishing Newest Title: 1st-Time Mom - Read
July 21: 
Championship Memories Still Resonate with St. Thomas Star Lillard - Read
July 14:
Portage Central Champ Rolls to Vanderbilt, Writing Next Chapter in Alabama - Read
July 12: Coaching Couple Passing On Knowledge, Providing Opportunities for Frankfort Wrestlers - Read
June 30: Hrynewich's Star Continuing to Rise with Olympic, Pro Sports Arrivals - Read

PHOTOS (Top) Clockwise from left, Gabriela Leon competes for the East Kentwood and University of Louisville track & field teams, and Maia Perez plays soccer for East Kentwood and trains for the NWSL's Angel City FC. (Middle) Leon holds up her NCAA championship trophy in June. (Below) Perez is one of three keepers for Angel City FC. [Photos courtesy of East Kentwood's athletic department (2017 soccer), Run Michigan (2017 track & field), the Louisville athletic department (2022 track & field) and Will Navarro/Angel City FC (2022 soccer).]